Inside the Massive Jail That Doubles as Chicago’s Largest Mental Health Facility

A man bound hand and foot struggles to sit upright and hollers, “This is inhumane!”

Another pulls his knees to his chin and, wide-eyed, whispers about telekinesis and the CIA.

“Someone cut off all my toes,” a third man with scars streaking his face says quietly. “I’m so glad I’m finally in the hospital.”

But this isn’t a hospital.

The Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago is one of the largest single-site pre-detention facilities in the world, with an average daily population hovering around 9,000 inmates. It is estimated that 35 percent of this population is mentally ill.

Milton in the mental health division of Cook County Jail.
The mental health division of Cook County Jail

According to a May 2015 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012. Two state-operated inpatient facilities and six City of Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. The report goes on to detail that Governor Bruce Rauner’s 2016 budget proposal to slash $87 million of funding for mental health services could cause an estimated 16,533 adults to lose access to care.

Emergency room visits for patients having a psychiatric crisis increased by 19 percent from 2009 to 2012. A 2013 report by Illinois mental health care provider Thresholds found that the increase in ER visits and hospitalizations resulting from the $113 million budget cuts cost Illinois $131 million—almost $18 million more than the original “savings.”

Social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery interviews a mentally ill inmate.

Now more patients than ever are being treated in jail rather than at a mental health facility. Cook County Jail has become one of the largest, if not the largest, mental health care provider in the United States. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office estimates that it costs $143 per day to house a general population inmate. But when taking into account the treatment, medication, and security required to incarcerate a mentally ill person, the daily cost doubles or even triples.

When people are arrested—even before they visit bond court—within hours they are interviewed by social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery and her team to screen for mental illness, a procedure unique to Cook County. Among the 60 people screened for mental illness on November 10 of last year after their arrest, 63 percent of women and 37 percent of men were considered mentally ill. Five had previously been involved with the Department of Children and Family Services, often indicating childhood abuse or neglect.

Petacque-Montgomery’s team quickly assesses crisis situations and immediately places acutely psychotic, violent, or suicidal arrestees in single cells away from other inmates. People who are psychotic are then sent to CERMAK, the jail’s division for physically ill and acutely mentally ill patients. Those with minor mental illness are sent to Division Two, Dorm Two, where they live in dormitory-style bunk beds instead of cells and receive therapy and medication.

After being diagnosed with mental illnesses when they were arrested, the four men interviewed below—Milton, Daniel, Tommy, and Andrew—were all serving time and receiving treatment in Dorm Two.

Tommy: Serving time for driving on a revoked/suspended license, driving under the influence

Tommy in the mental health division of Cook County Jail.

This would be my 11th time in Cook County. Why am I here? They say because anxiety. So I take anxiety pills…they help; they help a lot. I used to be a lot more antsy…I think this was diagnosed when I first came in. I think, but I’m not even sure, you know? I wasn’t even paying attention to what they were asking. I was just answering them, and I ended up here.

Our counselor has been very helpful. She’s very professional, very attentive to every single one of us. From day one she tells us this is a family and everybody gets treated as a family…. I thank God for her.

Growing up in Chicago…we go through a little phase I would say trying this, trying that…but I never really stuck to drugs. Alcohol, oh, that’s everywhere, so I just had a little bad luck getting caught driving a little intoxicated….

This program…everybody’s trying to go home, everybody’s trying to work on their problems, their behaviors. They’re giving you the help, so the last thing on everybody’s mind is going back to your old behaviors.

One of the many underground tunnels connecting Cook County Jail.

I get real frustrated real quick, but now I know what the problem is. So when I get out of here I’m going to go to the doctor and continue my pills because it helps me a lot….I thank God that Cook County has this opportunity where we can take our pills.

Being in jail, the littlest thing would get me frustrated—like commissary wouldn’t come on time; stupid things, like why is that officer screaming? I know it’s her job, but little things, you know? Like why can’t I watch this TV show? But as you get older you start to notice you can’t have it your way and this program here teaches us that. Before, I would break things, like a dummy, break things or scream out, lash out. And that would get me into trouble….But now, I’m OK. Thank God I got diagnosed.

This division of the jail, this is Hotel California right here—you can’t get no sweeter than this. This is the best one here. Other parts of the jail…you got some people who think they can handle everything by pushing people around…so if you don’t know anything about that you tend to get taken advantage of….A lot of people here, this is their first time in jail and they think this is Cook County. It’s not. I try to tell them, you think this is bad? Make this your last because this is nothing, this is the tip of the iceberg.

Daniel: Serving time for possession of heroin

Daniel in the mental health division of Cook County Jail.

I’ve probably spent three years of my life in jail. When I was 17 I did 18 months straight. I’ve been through the prison system a few times….I was in the youth homes when I was a kid, first time was when I was 13. So I’ve been through the system a little bit.

They got me on antidepressants. They got me on Prozac, so that got me over here. When I was a kid, when I was 11 or 12, they put me in a psych thing. There was a lot of shit going on with my family…they thought I was depressed so they put me on psych meds and I’ve been off and on that for years.

I would like to stay clean. I think I have a good shot. I want to stay clean. I think I can do that.

If you’re in a regular tier, especially in County, there would be a lot of gang-banging and shit like that. It’s not like that here. There’s a lot of young kids over here, but at least I’m away from the noise and the gang-banging. It’s my first time being in treatment in jail like this. It’s different. It’s better than being in a cell because you can move around a little bit.

A lot of people in the treatment are addicts. A lot of people in the jail population are too, but they’re not copping to it. There’s a lot of drug addicts where I’m at.

I’d like to get out of Illinois when I finish my probation. I’ve just been in trouble here for so long. I think it’s time to go.

Andrew: Serving time for possession of a controlled substance

I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, so I take meds for those things. I was diagnosed many years ago and I was looking for treatment and I was having trouble finding it, so I was self-medicating with alcohol.

My sister is my only family that has ever been supportive of me. I’m estranged from my father—he remarried after my mom died. I wrote him a letter when I got in here, telling him what had happened and where I was, and I never heard anything from him.

I got a letter from Social Security saying that they found out I was incarcerated and they had stopped my payments and that I was responsible for paying them back for the four months that they had paid. So they first thing I have to do when I get out of here is go to the Social Security office and get that fixed.

I’ve heard different stories about whether mental health problems could be hereditary or bloodline or something like that but I have no way of knowing because I’m adopted. So it could be in my biological history but I’ll never know.

I was getting medication from a place called the Ecker Center, but I couldn’t get the medication that I wanted. They tried a few different meds on me and they didn’t work so I just gave up.

Jail is jail, but I’d rather be in this situation than in the general population. This is easier to cope with than being locked in a cell, so I’m grateful for that.

Milton: Serving time for theft of lost or mislaid property

Milton in the mental health division of Cook County Jail.

I’m from Dallas County, Alabama, but I was born and raised here in Chicago, on the South Side. I stay in trouble, been in trouble since I was young, you know, pretty much led me here.

When I got here, the psych nurse had me come down and talk to her, asking me what’s been troubling me, what’s been troubling me all my life…She gave me a med, I don’t know what it was…but it kind of brought me down. Being in that program down there, ooh, it’s an experience. It’s an experience.

I’ve been in jail quite a few times, all right. I’ve watched this place change. It used to be like, back in the days when you come in here you had to fight your way through this place. Either the officers will beat you up or you fighting the gangs. If you’re not in a gang, that’s bad for you.

I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to jail. Can’t remember my disabilities….The lawyer asked me that and I said, ‘I don’t know, I really don’t know.’ It’s been so many times. After high school it went downhill. I signed up for the Marine Corps, didn’t make it through that, and it’s been…downhill, I mean hard as I try, just downhill.

Our parents got sick and they died at an early age, both of them, they died like a month apart….I remember it like it was yesterday. I couldn’t have been no more than five or six; we’s at the grocery down the road, we lived out in the country down in Alabama, way out in the woods, and we came back home, and mama had her eyes open. She was laying there with her eyes open. My dad couldn’t take it. I guess he just….One morning we had to go to school and he had threw up everywhere; took him to the hospital and he was gone, we didn’t see him no more. First thing came to my mind was, what’s going to happen to us?

My oldest sister brought us here to Chicago, but the brothers and sisters who stayed down there are more prosperous than the ones who came here. Just me and my baby brother came here, and my sister came here…and she was killed. Her husband shot her….I came in, went to my sister’s house…seeing her, there was still blood on the floor.

But you know, you learn to deal with these things, all these heartaches….I’ll be better when I get out of here, though. This is a dead house….It’s like a death trap for me. I got to get out of here.

I know I’m messed up! I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, you know. It’s hard to stop. I’ve had a psych evaluation before; when I was young, I stabbed a girl in the head with a pen. They asked me why I do that and I said she tried to push me off a balcony….It’s a mad thing. You can be crazy and still function properly and yet you’re crazy. I don’t get it.

I’m on medication here but I don’t know exactly what it is….I’m not a bad person, but if you keep pushing me…you can’t go in the woods and keep pushing an animal, you know.

You got these jails and you can’t do nothing, can’t control nobody. If they start helping the community more, put more useful things in, neighborhood things, it might be different, change. You don’t have basketball courts in the neighborhood no more, you don’t have help keeping them up. Instead of the guns and the policing…you could put a baseball diamond up, teach them on their baseball field.

As soon as I get out I want to get me something to drink and I’ll probably go by the store around my house and get me a nice small steak, and take it home and beat it up, sit down, eat it, take a hot bath and lay back. Get the crazies off my mind.

Elli Petacque-Montgomery: Social Worker, Director of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy at Cook County Jail

Social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery interviewing a Cook County arrestee.
Social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery interviewing a Cook County arrestee.

It was no surprise that when they closed all the hospitals, the major hospitals in Illinois, and folks didn’t have insurance, that they would end up in here.

The more they closed the hospitals, the more they closed the community mental health agencies, the more that people became uninsured and they lost the case manager in their life—the person to link up, [to tell them] ‘Here’s what you need to do to get your medication, here’s the bus you need to be on.’…Once they cut out constant case management, these people really didn’t have a link to get help and a lot of them lost their housing when they were acutely psychotic and needed to be hospitalized. There were no hospitals to go to, so we ended up with a lot of homeless people in Chicago, mentally ill on the street.

Those people would then, just like anyone else, be hungry and cold and you would see what we call crimes of survival; people that would just show up at the 7-Eleven, they’re thirsty and they’re drinking and there’s a village of voices in their head. They’re disoriented, they don’t know where they are, and the police are called, they’re brought in here.

By the time they get to us, they’ve been off their medicine so long, they’re so disoriented they absolutely don’t know where they are—so they think they’re waiting for the army—or the delusions are so severe they think someone has literally cut their toes off. So our job here is to do our best to advocate on the behalf of those people suffering from mental illness, catch them early and give them resources first thing before bond court and also when they’re in jail.

The now shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center.
The now-shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center.

Our goal is to try to convince people to get help…and at least give them choices, give them emergency numbers to call, to give them a plan to think about, and let them know [that] until they tackle and get help with their mental illness and their substance abuse, they’re going to keep coming back over and over and over again. Our main objective is to try to stop that cycle and to get them help with the limited resources that are in Chicago right now.

People that historically would have gone to public hospitals or state hospitals are ending up here….We are the de facto mental health hospital now. It is far more expensive to try to manage mental illness and handle incarceration at the same time. It’s also counter-therapeutic: to have someone in a cell and then try to do therapy in a jail that holds anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 people is incredibly challenging.

A mentally ill inmate during a therapy session at Cook County Jail.
A mentally ill inmate during a therapy session at Cook County Jail.

Someone might need to address post-traumatic stress disorder or their anxiety, their depression, their substance abuse—they’re not going to get that in a jail setting. It’s just not going to happen.

Someone I talked to today said to me, ‘I just can’t afford the meds, they’re too expensive.’ You hear that over and over and over….I look at someone suffering from severe mental illness as someone who has cancer. If we were to say these are all people with cancer, the country would have handled this differently. Or if we were to look at it as diabetes even, everyone would have their insulin. It would be a nonissue. There would be much more care and concern and unfortunately the stigma is still out there. We’re making strides, but we’re not anywhere close to where we need to really make the dent that we need to.

Sometimes I have people that beg me to stay here. I have a female I just interviewed who begged me not to let her out of this jail. Because she’s severely bipolar she will use heroin—which she has been doing for eight years—to deal with her illness. She hasn’t told anyone. She was diagnosed when she was 18 and she’s literally not told her family. If we could keep her in here she would stay, so she could get her meds, not do heroin, and get treatment.

Velma Ball: Correctional Rehabilitation Worker

There’s a lack of help for mental illness in the world; there aren’t as many mental health facilities for people to go to…we’re probably mainly a mental institution now.

In here we need more funding, more help with mental illness, more attention to inmates’ medication and their psychiatric needs. I think in here they’re medicated but they’re not dealt with psychiatrically adequately….We’re not adequately staffed to accommodate the mental illnesses and types of mental illnesses that these people have.

To me, the mental illness in females is a lot worse than males….These people have kids, you know it’s just a domino effect. I think we as women, we are emotional beings, so we need support and I don’t think they get the support here that they probably need to maintain their medication, to become a mother, to hold down a job, to be an effective parent. I think when they become incarcerated they get crushed.

Dr. Dena Williams: Director of Behavioral Health, Mental Health Care Transition Center at Cook County Jail

We try to do as much as we can here; sometimes the treatment that they receive here is more than they receive on the outside, because a lot of the clinics have been shut down. We try our very best to pull in as many resources as we can to try to connect them, and try to also partner with agencies once they get discharged. That’s the key piece—once they get out we want to make sure there is a continuity of care. So we really, really try our best to find those clinics that are still available and give them those resources to tap into once they leave.

There are not enough resources on the outside. We have people who are suffering from a mental illness who decompensate because they don’t have access to medication, and law enforcement might not be trained with how to deal with it, so instead of sending them to the hospital, they get arrested and come to jail.

A mentally ill inmate who has been receiving therapy and medication during his sentence at Cook County Jail.
A mentally ill inmate who has been receiving therapy and medication during his sentence at Cook County Jail.

In an ideal world, money and more resources need to be put into more programs and treatment availability on the outside. There needs to be funding for mental health programs and mental health treatment and access to medication.

Particularly in a city like Chicago, you do see a lot of individuals, both male and female, who come in who have experienced some sort of trauma just living in an underserved environment. If we can do something with the adolescents and the children, I think it would save a lot of people from coming here.

I think it’s very, very important to start outreach to a younger crowd, so even going in a juvenile detention center, offering programs similar to this would really, really help with the lack of resources some of these young girls and boys have. It would be essential for them to receive that help and receive that support, so hopefully they will make different choices and don’t end up in our custody.

Cicely Bailey: Supervisor, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, Court and Probation Services in Cook County

Typically a lot of mental illness is undiagnosed. Sometimes we are lucky enough to catch them and persuade them to get the mental health evaluation, and then stabilize them in every way that we can. But a lot of the mental health problems they self-medicate with drugs.

They need mental health care facilities in place. Otherwise everything is going to peak, as far as crime—recidivists, they’re going to go back to jail—all those things are going to peak again because these people are going to be without care….I’m just scared. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I foresee a lot of problems.

An arrestee is screened by social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery for mental illness.
An arrested man is screened by social worker Elli Petacque-Montgomery for mental illness.

Have you heard the stories of those that do things to go back in jail just to get the medication they need? That’s the scary part too. I just see the numbers rising in jail or they’re staying in there longer. Sometimes we get an order from the judge that says “release to TASC only,” which means they can’t get out until we find a facility that will take them—and if you can’t find a facility, one week goes by, two weeks go by, so the wait list is going to be long, and then that means they are going to stay in jail longer, which is unfair to the client. We can’t find a place in the community to address their mental health needs so they’re staying in jail….It’s sad.

Gerald Smith: CERMAK Corrections Officer

Working here you have to be comfortable in your own skin. You have to be comfortable being in uncomfortable situations. Patience is a virtue here.

It’s a revolving door here; you’ll see some of the same people numerous times. Some people we know by name, we know by face. A lot of these people that do take meds will have a moment where they feel fine and they think they don’t need them anymore and when they stop taking them, they don’t recognize their behavior, their demeanor, all of it regresses. And then by that point they’re not in their right mind to go back to taking the meds properly.

We’ve had as many as 50 people up here on this unit even though there’s only 24 beds. So we have guys on mattresses on the floor. It’s always full.

The majority of us who work up here have been attacked physically. They need more space here. There are more and more people coming in every day with mental illness.

Printiss Jones: CERMAK Superintendent

We’re in the dark here. The people that are in our custody shouldn’t be here. The state should be ashamed of themselves and the court should be ashamed of themselves.

No matter how many classes you take, it does not prepare you for what you see here. I’ve seen detainee patients so agitated, so upset that you can see them struggling within themselves, the veins are popping out of their neck, you start to worry about a medical crisis—a stroke, something of that accord. We know, we’ve learned that this is not their fault. We know how hard this is. This is heartbreaking; this is heartbreaking stuff. I’ve seen my officers wipe a tear and try to be strong.

Yesterday we had a lady that fully clothed just went and stood under the shower. Forty-nine years of age. The officers are talking to her, the mental health specialists are talking to her, medical staff is talking to her. We finally get her to come out. She’s just soaking wet. So everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, my God, let’s get her a blanket, let’s talk to her,’ and nothing is working. All this woman is saying during the whole episode is, ‘I’m not going to the mall! I’m not going to the mall! You’re not making me go to the mall!’ We go and get a wheelchair out and put it to the side of her. The staff coaxed her into the chair and she started crying and said, ‘Why are you making me go to the mall?’

We escort her to her room, the officers help her get her wet clothes off and give her medication and she goes to sleep. And you come back and look in her room and you see this woman who was just in a severe crisis and is laying there in a balled-up position with a blanket over her. What are we doing? What are we doing?

Cook County Jail.
Cook County Jail.

I’m still learning a lot of things about the severely mentally ill, but it’s challenging; it’s comical at times, it’s dangerous a lot. They’re real unpredictable, everyone’s on their toes.

You can’t just take a mentally ill person and lock them away. Society has already shown it doesn’t work. Why would we do it here? Not one of these people should be here.

* * *

Lili Holzer-Glier is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue and The New York Times. Her first book, Rockabye, documents the Rockaways post–Hurricane Sandy and was published in 2015 by Daylight Books.


Jailed for Being Homeless

On an overcast autumn morning, 21-year-old Joey Fiala sits on a sprawl of sleeping bags and blankets, watching Colorado’s prolonged summer yield to winter. Fiala, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, is among a group of homeless people who gather most days in Jefferson Park on the north end of the Old Town Square section in Fort Collins. Here, a grassy lot sidles up to a busy railroad track and serves as a sort of daytime rest stop for folks without shelter. The men and women socialize and sneak catnaps in between hustling for cash and shuttling around the community to make use of its spread-out resources. When night falls, however, residents without shelter rush to get out of sight. Groups disperse and individuals head off in pairs or on their own.

Ray Lyall, 57, homeless for two years, has worked with Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) for the past 22 months. He was arrested on October 24, along with others working on DHOL’s Tiny Homes project. Since he was released from jail, he has been camping with a group at a site in Denver at 26th and Lawrence Streets, which was raided on December 3. Lyall says the camping ban is used to target people sleeping outside and give tickets for other offenses. “Can’t have anything under or over you,” he says, explaining the camping ban. “I can lay in the freezing snow but I can’t have anything on my back.”

Fort Collins, a college town at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, prohibits practices such as loitering, “misuse of public waters,” and “camping or pitching a tent without permission.” Being homeless here necessitates invisibility, and consequently, isolation. Things that offer safety and even comfort at night—tents or multi-person encampments—make hiding difficult, and often land homeless people in jail.

“I’ve been to jail twice for camping,” Fiala says between swigs of coffee and bites of a doughnut, pulling his jacket tight around his small frame.

Albus Brooks (far right), the councilman for Denver’s District 9 who sponsored the camping ban ordinance, meets with members of Resurrection Village and local community activists on December 2 to try to come to a solution and delay a forced eviction. Police evicted occupants on the evening of December 3.

“I’ve been in for camping and for trespassing,” chimes in Steve, who doesn’t give his last name. A dad with a perfect goatee and cheeks rosy from the incoming chill, Steve hesitates to offer more. But others in the group nod in agreement.

“Yeah, I got ticketed twice for sleeping under the Linden Street Bridge,” Fiala says, jumping back in. “I was sick, sleeping on a mattress under the bridge, and they woke me up and gave me a ticket. I balled it up and threw it in their face. ‘F— you! I’m not gonna pay that. I can’t pay that.’ So I ended up in jail for failure to appear.”

Recent years have seen a surge of policing efforts throughout Colorado targeting those without shelter. Numerous communities have banned panhandling, camping, or sleeping in cars on public property. Loitering and trespassing laws prevent homeless individuals from having a safe place to rest—or options for washing up or using a bathroom. Violators face fines of $100 or more, an expense that quickly adds up for repeat offenders, landing many with warrants and, eventually, jail time. (Officials in Fort Collins have said they are looking into proposals that would allow people to sleep outside in certain places.)

Marcus Hyde, a volunteer with DHOL and the principle builder of Tiny Homes.
Marcus Hyde, a volunteer with Denver Homeless Out Loud and the principle builder of Tiny Homes.

According to the 2015 report “No Right to Rest: Criminalizing Homeless in Colorado,” more than half of the state’s homeless population has been in jail for minor infractions.

Fiala has been homeless about three years, or pretty much his entire adult life. When he first moved to Fort Collins with his then-girlfriend, they slept in their car. “But,” he sputters, in sequential bursts of frustration, “she cheated on me….She wrecked [our car].” He dunks a doughnut in his rapidly cooling cup of coffee and shudders. “You got a cigarette?”

Wes Hammond, a middle-aged man who has been listening quietly, suddenly plunges into the exchange. Hammond has been homeless on and off for much of his life. Born in Kentucky, he lived briefly in Tennessee before heading west. “I hitchhiked for three days to Colorado and this guy picked me up, asked if I wanted to work on a ranch,” he says. “So I did, up in the mountains, but I got tired of that, so I built a bike and I rode it off that mountain.”

He arrived in Fort Collins in 2010, initially finding stability in a relationship. When that “blew up” a year ago, he found himself back on the streets.

Marcus Hyde
Volunteer Marcus Hyde.

“I’ve had three camping tickets, two trespassing tickets, open container, parks violation, and urinating in public,” he claims. “My fines come to $2,009….I just got out of jail last night. Just one night this time. Failure to appear. Tacked on a $50 fine.” He takes a drag off the spliff that’s been floating around the circle and shakes his head ruefully. “I won’t be able to pay it. And all my stuff’s there at the police station. I can’t get to it.”

Steve, eyeing the joint, chimes in once more. “You better be careful with that. We may be in Colorado, but our house doesn’t have any walls,” he says, referring to the state’s legalization of marijuana use in private, but not in public spaces. As with open alcohol containers and intoxication, smoking cannabis is permitted only for those with the means to do so behind some sort of closed door. Individuals who lack shelter automatically miss out on key benefits afforded by seclusion. The very invisibility they seek when scattering at night is almost impossible to come by without the security of a safe and private place to rest.

* * *

Almost 70 miles away in Denver, it’s a very different scene at a not-so-different park. On the night of October 24, 2015, a group of homeless individuals and their supporters planted themselves in Sustainability Park. Led by Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), a grassroots activist organization, the volunteers had spent several days building “a tiny-home village to be occupied and managed by houseless people.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that nearly 10,000 Coloradans were homeless on a given night in January 2015. Advocates note that these point-in-time surveys—volunteers attempt to count individuals in shelters and on the streets on a single night—tend to result in drastic underestimates. The methods make it easy to “miss” those who are homeless short term, temporarily institutionalized, doubled-up with friends, not engaged with resources, or effectively hidden from authorities. However, the numbers do tell us that, while national homelessness has declined since 2013, in Colorado it has remained steady, even seeing a slight increase. More specifically, Denver’s point-in-time data show a consistent upward trend in metro-area homelessness since 2011, from 3,007 to 3,978. According to the “No Right to Rest” report, “shelter beds are available for only about 10%” of Denver’s homeless population.

Nonetheless, Denver and other jurisdictions across the state continue to propose bills and implement policies that make it more difficult to survive on the streets. Denver has not only banned camping but also the use of a variety of items for shelter, including tents, cardboard, and newspapers. In the midst of this citywide dearth of affordable housing, DHOL’s tiny homes were designed to provide much-needed shelter. But when 70 police officers, including a SWAT team, descended, Resurrection Village quickly became a protest site.

Police confiscated the tiny homes and as people scattered, 10 were arrested, including DHOL volunteer Ray Lyall. Originally from California, Lyall moved to Colorado in the 1980s to be closer to family and get a fresh start. Now 57, he has been homeless since a botched construction deal two years ago left him unable to pay rent.

Lyall finds the city’s shelters too loud, too dirty, and too full of drama to rest; he prefers to sleep outside.

Lyall’s arrest for trying to live in Resurrection Village racked up consequences of its own. “I was the last one out of jail,” he says. “I had to go to court three days after I got out of jail and I’ve gotta go to court again next week and it’s gonna last a long time…$25 for a public defender, $25 for a jury trial, and they’re gonna have to waive it. I’ve told everybody possible, ‘I’m homeless. I have no money.’ If they wanna say I can’t have a jury trial, great. That’ll look better for me. I’m homeless so I can’t have a jury trial. I can’t afford your system.”

* * *

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, three-quarters of homeless people in the United States don’t know of a safe and legal place to sleep. With few, often inadequate, beds to meet the growing need, homeless residents by default carry the double burden of being poor and being criminal. In places like Fort Collins, where a 2015 point-in-time survey revealed a 4 percent rise in homelessness, if they can’t stay out of sight, they will be ticketed.

DJ Razee, 49, camping at Resurrection Village. Razee was part of group that was arrested with the Tiny Homes protest on Oct. 24th.
DJ Razee, 49, camping at Resurrection Village. Razee was one of 10 people arrested during the Tiny Homes protest on Oct. 24.

Since most are unable to afford the sanctions, tickets equal jail time. “The thing is, they’ll always take you [to jail] because you can’t pay the fines,” says Joey Fiala.

And though Fort Collins has taken steps to reduce the consequences of the legislation that criminalizes homelessness, some worry these approaches gloss over the real problem.

Tents in Resurrection Village. Tents were only set up once it snowed. People sleep outside otherwise.
Tents in Resurrection Village. Tents were set up only once it snowed. People sleep outside otherwise.

A year ago, the Municipal Court introduced Special Agency sessions to address so-called “quality of life violations” in a “compassionate, resourceful manner.” Homeless defendants charged with various offenses may be referred for alternative sentencing. But Fort Collins Homeless Coalition’s Cheryl Distaso argues, “This erases the question of whether or not that person should even have gotten a ticket in the first place.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Michael “Miguel” Wheeler serves dinner at Jefferson Park, as he has nearly every Tuesday since getting off the streets himself. The lawn bustles all afternoon with chatter and laughter as homeless folks fill their bellies, sip hot coffee, and stock up on brand new socks. But once darkness descends, people ready to head their separate ways for the night. A young couple turns north, starting the several-mile march beyond city limits, where it’s legal to pitch a tent if you avoid private property. Old-timers who’ve been living outside for decades attach loaded-down carts to rusty bicycles—houses on wheels. Others seem to disappear into the fading light of dusk. Invisible.

“When the sun goes down, it’s time to go to sleep,” Fiala says. Still, he adds, “every time they find us, they’re gonna give a ticket.”

* * *

Stacey McKenna is a freelance journalist in northern Colorado. She covers travel, adventure, and social justice. Visit her website or follow her @mckenna_stacey.

Benjamin Rasmussen is a freelance photographer based in Denver, Colorado. He spent his childhood with an indigenous group on an island in the southern Philippines, his university years with evangelicals in a small town in northern Arkansas, and a year with the descendants of Vikings in the Faroe Islands, a nation of 45,000 residents in the middle of the North Atlantic.

Return to Rikers

In 1990, Patrick Burke* killed a man in a fight. He spent two years as a fugitive, sold drugs, and killed another man in a drug dispute. He was arrested in 1993 and spent a year and a half on Rikers Island, New York City’s sprawling detention center—the first stop in two decades of incarceration. He was released in 2013.

In June of 2015, Patrick returned to Rikers Island for the first time in 20 years—to visit his son. This is his story, as told to W.M. Akers and illustrated by Josh Kramer.

*At the subject’s request, his name was changed.


W.M. Akers, a features editor at Narratively, is a Tennessee playwright who lives in New York City. He writes about theater at

Josh Kramer is a cartoonist and journalist who self-publishes The Cartoon Picayune, an anthology of comics journalism. His work can be found at

A New Approach to Prosecution

Jeff Rosen’s job is to reduce crime and protect public safety. Yet he thinks that putting people in jail and prisons should be a last resort.

The second-term District Attorney of Santa Clara County, California, Rosen calls himself a reform-minded DA and is no stranger to controversy. After a razor-thin election that unseated the incumbent in 2010, the reforms Rosen has championed—including reducing penalties for certain crimes—have displeased some colleagues in law enforcement, while others have called him courageous.

The following videos of DA Rosen talking about innovations in Santa Clara County illustrates some ways that prosecutors can aim to reduce the use of jail incarceration even as they protect public safety.


1. When the Time Doesn’t Match the Crime

California recently passed Proposition 47, reducing many nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, consequentially releasing thousands of inmates. Many California DAs opposed the law, arguing that it would make communities less safe, while Rosen and a handful of others supported it, asserting that many low-level offenders are incarcerated for too long.

“We have to draw a distinction between people that we are angry at and people that we are afraid of.”


2. Stopping Victims from Becoming Criminals

Santa Clara County’s Victim Services Unit takes a long-term approach to crime prevention, by working to prevent families and individuals affected by crime from falling into a dangerous cycle.

“If perhaps we had done a better job when that person was the victim of a crime and we provided them services and tried to help them recover from their trauma and get back on their feet, that they may not then have gone on to commit a crime.”


3. Driving While Undocumented

An estimated 10 percent of Santa Clara County’s population is made up of undocumented immigrants, and a new policy aims to reduce deportations that result from minor infractions.

“It’s not fair for someone to be deported for driving on a suspended license or for doing a shoplifting.”


4. Justice Goes Both Ways

In September 2015, the DA’s office charged three correctional officers with the murder of a mentally ill inmate at Santa Clara County Main Jail—a surprising move given that correctional officers are rarely prosecuted.

“We’re not quite living up to the ideal that we have as Americans about human dignity and about how to treat our fellow human beings.”


5. Transparency Tactics

Eliminating the use of secretive grand juries in cases when police officers are involved with civilian fatalities may be a way to increase public trust.

“People can, of course, disagree with my decision. But I think in a democracy everyone’s entitled to the information upon which I made that decision.”


6. Never Too Late To Correct a Mistake—Or Too Early to Prevent One

Santa Clara County’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, charged with investigating cases of wrongful conviction, has exonerated several people previously convicted of crimes, and also informs attempts to minimize wrongful conviction in the future.

“It’s absolutely essential for every DA’s office to have a conviction integrity unit. We want the public to have faith and confidence in our convictions.”

* * *

Alexandra Nikolchev, documentary filmmaker, and Zara Katz, photo editor, producer and director of photography at Narratively, are the team behind Hot in Here Productions. They turn concepts and facts into compelling stories for documentary and branded content.

Judging Without Jail


etite, with thick-framed glasses and short, stylish hair, Judge Desiree Charbonnet has an upbeat, officious manner appropriate for someone who presides over a courtroom. During her eight years on the bench, she has cultivated efficiency to deal with the thousands of cases that land in her court. But recently, the judge has had more empathy toward those who appear before her. She has taken the time to learn more about certain types of repeat defendants, including those charged with prostitution or who have mental illness and substance use issues, to better understand not how to sentence them, but what approaches might keep them out of the criminal justice system—rather than on an endless cycle in and out of jail.

This shift is in part about recognizing the humanity in people who appear in her court, but also about getting better results. When it comes to nonviolent misdemeanors, many studies show that high incarceration rates for those charges “have really not done anything for public safety,” Judge Charbonnet says. Jail time does not effectively deter certain crimes rooted in social issues like addiction, poverty or mental illness. The judge has been a front-row witness to cycles of arrest, missed court dates, unpaid fines and fees, and incarceration that lead many individuals to appear before her time after time.

Responding to this, New Orleans courts, like many others around the country, are shifting away from incarcerating people charged with nonviolent offenses. But to take root, this shift requires a significant change in thinking, and that mind-set is hard to come by in the daily grind of a municipal court already bogged down with enormous caseloads.

A major part of this shift is something called diversion court. It’s a concept that diverts defendants who meet specific eligibility requirements away from the criminal justice system and toward supportive services to help curb the underlying problems or behaviors. As part of the process, defendants’ charges may be dismissed.

Judge Charbonnet first got involved in creating new diversion court programs as part of the New Orleans task force of the American Bar Association’s Racial Justice Improvement Project. The group’s members believe that diversion programs have “a profound racial impact by ensuring more minorities are diverted from the system.”

Judge Charbonnet led the charge to start a diversion court for mental illness in 2014, partnering with the city’s health department for a two-year pilot. She had seen the city’s mentally ill repeatedly arrested and incarcerated on nonviolent offenses, then caught in a cycle of missed court dates or unpaid fines and fees that led to more arrests and jail time.

“Jail is not the right place for the mentally ill, clearly,” she says.

But Judge Charbonnet’s court didn’t have the resources to connect people with social services, get them into treatment programs, or follow up with caregivers or social agencies that could keep these defendants out of the criminal justice system. Two new federal grants helped create the Community Alternatives Program to help with that. Defendants are referred by their public defenders, then a screener and a system of service providers step in to assess each individual’s eligibility and connect people with whatever they might need—from getting into treatment or on medication to being connected with Medicaid coverage or housing.

Long-term funding remains unclear, but the Community Alternatives Program could pay for itself in savings to the public, Judge Charbonnet told the New Orleans City Council. “When you look at that one person with 20 arrests a year, taking that one person out of the system makes a huge difference,” she says.

The Honorable Desiree M. Charbonnet, Chief Judge for the City of New Orleans Municipal Court, photographed in her chambers on December 7, 2015 in New Orleans. Charbonnet oversees programs that offer counseling, treatment and housing instead of prosecution.

In 2014, in partnership with Women With a Vision and the Orleans Public Defenders Office, the judge started a diversion court for people arrested on prostitution charges. Called Crossroads, the program aims to help those stuck in the cycle of prostitution, arrest, and incarceration—without requiring guilty pleas—by offering a community of support tailored to each person’s needs and experiences. That might mean one-on-one or group counseling, job training, or help finding health care or housing. The program is run by Women With a Vision with private funds they raise to provide services and supplies for participants; in its first year, 52 women completed the program, out of 77 deemed eligible.

The success of such diversion programs depends largely on whether the defendants are assigned to Judge Charbonnet’s section and if she is then able to engage them. An encouraging, empathetic judge offering a court-approved path of assistance sends the message that the system is on their side. Conversely, she says, when people facing criminal charges are afraid of court, they often don’t show up. Warrants go out for their arrest and their cases continue to bog down the system.

Pay close attention to Judge Charbonnet’s fast-moving roll of cases and you see that she handles diversion court defendants differently. On the day of the Crossroads diversion court, a number of women walk to the stand, one after another. Most of the accused represent themselves, although a case manager stands at their side. The judge peers over her glasses to make eye contact.

“Ma’am, in connection with your charge, I understand you’d like to participate in our program,” says Judge Charbonnet.

‘Your charge,’ she says. No mention of what that charge is.

“Because as soon as you say ‘prostitution’ everyone in the courtroom is looking to see who it is and what does she look like.” Judge Charbonnet explains later. “You know, it just raises eyebrows. So I thought I’d eliminate that immediately.”

This small change aims to make the women feel more comfortable, supported.

“What I’m trying to do in the very moment that they deal with me is remove some of that stigma or embarrassment that they’ve experienced in the past,” she says. “I’m the judge, but I’m not judging you. I don’t look down on you.”

Language is important. Those in Judge Charbonnet’s diversion court are not “hereby ordered to appear” on a given date. The tone and words sound more like checking in.

“I’m counting on you that you’ll come back and see me,” she says, explaining her approach in her chambers, a slight smile lifting her eyebrows. “I need to know how you’re doing.”

Crossroads works with participants and connects them to other services. After an initial arrest and up to 48 hours of detention in Orleans Parish Prison, defendants enter Judge Charbonnet’s court. Women With a Vision caseworker Michelle Wiley stands before her and motions to the women to step up as their names are called. There’s no break or announcement to flag that this diversion court is anything other than standard procedure.

A thin woman with long wavy brown-and-gray hair walks up. She’s doing well, Wiley says. The woman smiles. The judge asks if she can finish the program in the next month and graduate. She thinks she can. “Keep going,” the judge says. “Keep it up.”


Jee Park, Deputy District Defender for Orleans Parish, says the amount of time sex workers usually spend in jail is ridiculous. Defendants who plead guilty to prostitution charges face fines of about $300, an amount too great for most to pay. Judges often sentence repeat defendants with incarceration instead of offering probation, landing them in jail 50 days on average. That long in jail “means you lose your housing, lose any other job you might have had,” Park says. “So you get out and of course you’ll go back to what you were doing.”

Judge Charbonnet can’t offer the new approach to everyone. Crossroads diversion court participants can’t be on probation or have a recent conviction for a violent crime; the district attorney must agree to let them participate; and they need a local address to prove they can attend counseling sessions over time.

Judge Charbonnet has had to calibrate her own expectations as she’s come to better understand the complexities behind the behaviors and lives of many repeat defendants. It’s not 12 sessions and then all “rosy, sunny day,” she says. Individuals may enroll in the Community Alternatives Program or Crossroads and still wind up back in court, and she understands that. They may have to be diverted a second time or even more. But that does not deter her from praising their efforts at every step.

In court, Judge Charbonnet makes a big deal when a woman completes Crossroads and gets her charges dismissed.

She deliberately calls it “graduation.” Many of these women have never had any type of formal ceremony for completing anything, she says. The judge prints a certificate for each woman. She just bought a stack of frames, so the women have something more substantial to hold on to.

She presents the certificate to each woman in court and then begins to clap. Her staff claps, too.

“And generally, when the staff starts clapping, the rest of the courtroom starts clapping,” says Judge Charbonnet. “Some of them may not even know why they’re clapping. But for that individual that just graduated, that’s a room full of people clapping for them.”

* * *

Eve Troeh is a writer and radio reporter based in New Orleans. She is the news director of NPR affiliate WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter @evetroeh and follow WWNO on Instagram @wwno_fm.

Edmund D. Fountain is an editorial and commercial photographer living in New Orleans who specializes in environmental portraiture and reportage. 

Behind the Scenes of Public Defense

Striking and animated in a gray suit and heels, Mary Grace Ruden strides through the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. She moves quickly, comfortably, talking with everyone in the courthouse, from janitors to opposing counsel, as if they had roomed together in college.

But then she’ll say something like how, in any given criminal case, “The facts are what they are. They’re not superfluous, exactly, but they are kind of tangential.” That’s when I’m reminded that disarmament is a great way to win a battle.

After graduating from the prestigious University of Texas School of Law, she spent a decade in private practice and was profiled twice by Texas Monthly in its annual issue on “Super Lawyers.” She made fantastic money and had her pick of interesting cases. Yet when the Harris County Public Defender’s Office started in 2010, she gave up her lucrative corporate career to work in a small sunny office on the 13th floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Like all public defenders, she is assigned cases based on whatever comes through the courts. Despite the cramped working conditions and heavy caseload, Ruden lights up when she talks about her clients.

Ruden works with all clients who are assigned to the public defender’s office and have a severe mental illness. Many of them also struggle with addiction and most, if not all, have lengthy criminal histories. They are perhaps the hardest demographic to defend successfully, not because of their problems per se, but because those problems make them the group least likely to do the two things Ruden needs most: to show up for court and not plead guilty.

On a sunny Thursday in November, photographer Patrick Michels and I followed Ruden on her lively rounds, hustling to keep up with what she apologetically called a “very light day.”

1. “The sickest of the sick”

Harris County Public Defender Mary Grace Ruden at work in downtown Houston, November 5, 2015.
Harris County Public Defender Mary Grace Ruden at work in downtown Houston, November 5, 2015.

It’s 9 a.m. and Ruden is prepping for court. Most days she has at least a few clients scheduled and gets more assigned on the fly, but this morning the opposite happens. One of the two defendants she expected to represent has hired a private attorney. This leaves her to dig into the file of the client we’ll call Mr. G.

“The gentleman is accused of theft,” she says. The state claims Mr. G and a friend conspired to steal scratch-off lottery tickets from a convenience store where the friend worked behind the counter. But despite the store owner telling police Mr. G’s role in the $200 scam was minimal, prosecutors are focusing on him.

Ruden says this happens a lot. “You have to understand, I get all my people because they have a [psychiatric] diagnosis and they’re on medication. So they can be perfectly capable and competent, but they’re probably easily manipulated.”

The clients who end up on Ruden’s docket rarely have a clean slate. The Harris County Public Defender’s Office uses an algorithm based on past convictions, as well as other factors, to analyze defendants as they enter the system and identify “the sickest of the sick,” according to Ruden. “That becomes our docket.” Mr. G has been identified by the algorithm several times already.

Still reading Mr. G’s file, she frowns. “I bet you money that the guy who didn’t get arrested doesn’t have a criminal record. My client does. When the police show up and start running names, the guy that’s been [in jail] before gets to go again.”

2. “Time is our friend”


On the way downstairs, Ruden discusses the one advantage she and Mr. G do enjoy: he’s out on bond.

Many defendants can’t scrape together the money to bail out of jail, so they’ll take a plea to anything that gets them out and back to their jobs and families, even if they’re innocent. Ruden says this is especially true of her clients. “The homeless population, poor population, mentally ill population—none of them have clean criminal backgrounds. They would rather be free than worry about fighting a charge, so they’re willing to plead guilty to anything.”

If Ruden’s clients can’t afford their bail and won’t plead guilty, they’re likely to be stuck in pretrial detention—that is, jail—for weeks or even months while they await trial. In many cases, defendants who maintain their innocence will spend much longer in pretrial lockup than if they had pleaded guilty and served a short jail sentence. It’s a system that encourages guilty pleas, especially for the poor, whether they’re guilty or not.

But if Ruden’s clients are out on bond, she says, “they give me the luxury of doing my job: defending the case and holding the state to its proof. It’s so fun when we actually get to do it!”

In this instance, prosecutors claim to have security camera footage of Mr. G at the convenience store. Ruden isn’t taking their word for it. Once she gets the footage and scrutinizes the rest of the state’s evidence, she plans to ask for the charges to be dismissed. If that doesn’t happen, she’ll ask for the case to be “reset,” or adjourned to give her another few weeks to prepare for trial—and to wear down the prosecution’s resolve.

“In misdemeanor land, if they’re on bond, we do a lot of resetting,” Ruden says. “No state’s case ever got better with time. Time is our friend.”

3. “Any number of reasons”


Yes, time is on the defendant’s side—unless he’s late for court.

When Ruden arrives, her client is nowhere in sight. What’s worse, the court coordinator has already called docket, making Mr. G not merely late but unlawfully absent. His file now sits in the stack with those of other defendants who did not appear in court and whose bonds will be revoked. Unless Ruden can intervene, Mr. G is going to lose his money and his freedom, and she will lose her most effective leverage: time.

None of this shows up on Ruden’s face as she breezes among the prosecutors, chatting. After one hands her a CD-ROM in a paper sleeve, Ruden makes a beeline for the elevators.

“He could still be downstairs trying to get in,” she says. “He could have just missed docket call. So what I need to do is track back up to my office and find whatever phone number he put on his bonding information. That’s what we’re going to call to see if we can get him up here today.”

If Ruden succeeds, Mr. G’s bond still might be revoked. A judge has total control over the fate of a defendant who misses docket call, no matter the circumstances that caused his or her tardiness. But if Ruden fails, bond definitely will be taken away.

“He may have a sick child,” she says. “There could be any number of reasons he’s not here. If I can get the reason, we can ask the judge to reinstate the bond. The reality is, this is somebody whose case probably should get dismissed. But if he were in custody, he would have pled by now, just to get out.”

4. “Cross your fingers”



Back in her office, Ruden digs out Mr. G’s bond paperwork, looking for contact information. “Cross your fingers,” she says. “This is a big bond, by the way—a $2,500 bond, which means he had to part with at least $250, plus collateral. So we also have an economic interest in finding him.”

We, she says, as if her own money were on the line.

She squints at the paper. “And I can’t read the phone number. Gonna take a flying stab at this digit….” She dials. “Disconnected. Okay, I’ll take guesses now. Come tell me what you think this number is.”

It looks like a star. “Four?” I venture.


This is one of several moments when someone else would get frustrated or discouraged, but Ruden doesn’t miss a beat. She keeps dialing, guessing other numbers. When that fails, Ruden calls in the big guns: the bond company. “They’ll help because they’ve got a financial interest,” she says. If Mr. G doesn’t turn up soon, they could be out more than $2,000.

5. “This ain’t what you think it is”


While she waits for the bond company to call her back, Ruden does a little work on Mr. G’s case.

She pops a disc into her laptop. “This is the video I was just given,” she says. For the half second it takes to load, Ruden seems tense. Then a male voice says, “Yeah, we got a vehicle pulled over at East and 13th. The driver is heavily intoxicated.”

It’s not video of a convenience store. It’s audio of a traffic stop.

“I guarantee the DA has not listened to this or he wouldn’t have given it to me,” Ruden says.

“Yeah, I’m pulled over in that restaurant parking lot,” the man drawls. “Okay, thanks. I appreciate it.”

That’s the end.

“This is the state’s proof on a theft case?” Ruden sits for a moment in stunned glee. “It’s not proof of anything for anybody, let alone this case and my client.”

It’s possible the police department gave the wrong disc to the prosecutor, who passed it on to Ruden sight unseen. Or perhaps someone was betting Mr. G’s court-appointed lawyer would have him plead guilty without reviewing the disc. Whatever happened, it’s clear the state’s evidence doesn’t incriminate Mr. G.

She shakes her head. “I wish we could get ahold of my client, because, factually, I think this is one of the cases where we got ’em. We’ll take a turn by the DA to tell them, ‘This ain’t what you think it is.’ If Mr. G were here, they might dismiss it today. The fact that he’s not, I know that they won’t.”

6. “I really love this guy”


While waiting for the bond company to call back with a number for Mr. G, Ruden studies the latest reports on her clients who are in a specialized probation program. Ruden is part of a team that works with defendants in the Harris County Felony Mental Health Court, where the program lasts up to three years and demands frequent court appearances, drug tests, and engagement in programming such as therapy and job training. But all this rigor is meant to be supportive.

“It’s really designed to get you to succeed,” Ruden says. “Relapsing is not going to get you [kicked] out. For the most part, new law violations are not going to be an automatic out. Everybody’s different and there will always be things to work on, but if you’re willing to work, to show up and try and be accountable when you fall short, by and large, you’re going to be successful.”

Ruden is sifting through a sheaf of her clients’ toxicology results. “The people that have done everything that’s expected of them will be All Stars,” Ruden says, referring to the court’s list of defendants who are succeeding in the program. “The people who haven’t won’t be. Those with more significant issues, like new cases or positive drug results, may or may not go into custody.”

Two of her probationers are already in custody, jailed on new charges. Ruden will visit them this afternoon and then attend a meeting, before court convenes, to discuss all of the probationers’ progress.

Looking at one client’s file, Ruden grins. “This fella is doing well,” she says. “He’s one of my favorite clients, because he’s not a young man. He’s in his late 50s. But when he pled into the court, he told the judge, ‘It’s not how you begin. It’s how you end.’ And I thought, ‘I really love this guy.’ ”

Moments later the phone rings. It’s the bond company with a number for Mr. G.

Ruden trails off, lost in the man’s file. “He’s doing beautifully, actually. I can’t wait for you to meet some of these folks.”

7. “Now she understands”


“Hi,” Ruden says in a lighter, higher tone than usual after calling the number supplied by the bond company. “May I speak to Mr. G? This is Mary Grace Ruden. I’m his lawyer.” She listens. “Okay, do you know where he is? Would you give me a number? ….Okay, well, it’s pretty important. Because he posted a bond on this case, and I don’t want him to lose any money or be taken into custody.” She grins at something but keeps her voice steady and soft. “So if you have any idea about how to go about getting him, I can help you with that. Do you have a number that you’re going to call to see if you can try to find him? Okay….”

Ruden gives her name and number twice and hangs up.

“Well that was fun,” she says. At first the woman who answered the phone said she was “going to call a friend of a friend to see if she can get him.” But after hearing that Mr. G had missed court, she yelled, “Shut up!”

“I was like, sweet,” Ruden says. “Now she understands.”

8. “A good old-fashioned mystery”

Alex Bunin, the lead Harris County Public Defender, appears in the doorway. 

“Have y’all been to court?” he asks.

“We have!” Ruden says. “We’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned mystery this morning. I have a really strong case with good evidence on our side and a missing client.” Ruden describes her phone call to Mr. G’s family members and her warning that bond would be forfeited if he didn’t get in touch with her.

Soft-spoken and smiling, Bunin started the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2010. His attitude toward clients was a major draw for Ruden.

“Alex is a really big proponent of holistic defense,” Ruden says. That’s the principle of connecting clients with what they need to stay out of jail, whether it’s making a referral to a psychiatrist, housing, or enrollment in a job training program.

“[I]f you’re going to really help somebody, you’re helping them in more areas than just their criminal case, you know? They need ID. They need help explaining to landlords at an apartment complex that a successfully completed deferred adjudication is not a conviction. If you can come along and do those things, you radically decrease the chances that they’re going to be your client again.” That’s the fun part, patching up the rest of it. “It gets everybody here very excited.”

Staying excited is important to Ruden. That’s why she makes challenges for herself, like trying not to plead a single case guilty for a month.

“It’s unrealistic,” she says. “And I’ve never actually been successful, because I’m not going to let anybody stay in jail just because I’ve made some little pact for myself. But I’ve come close. I’ve had months where I had 60, 70, 75 percent dismissal rates.”

“Now nobody’s going to make a little trophy or have a ticker tape parade, because everybody’s trying their best.” But Ruden wants to stay competitive for competition’s sake. “Burnout in this profession is understandable and real. I don’t ever want to settle in and not care. If I ever come to a place where I don’t care about the person, then I need to hang it up.”

9. “My Tom Cruise moment”


At last, Mr. G calls back.

“Hi, Mr. G? Where are ya? You’re at home? Okay, we have court today. Yeah. Did you forget? You what? ….Oh goodness. Okay. All right.”

Ruden explains into the phone, “No, I don’t want you to get into trouble, but here’s the deal. We were late last time—you recall that? And now your file is sitting in the pile for bond forfeiture and your bond is big. I don’t want you to lose your bond. I don’t want you to go into custody. So I need you to get here. If you think you can get here in the next 30 minutes, great. If you don’t, then I need you to be here tomorrow, on time, and I’ll go down and ask the judge to roll the case until tomorrow if she’ll let me.”

She asks, “So which do you want to try to do? Okay. That’s fine. But that means being here before 9….” Ruden hangs up. “Sometimes you’re, like, hollering into a well, ‘Let me defend you!’” she says. “‘Help me help you’—my Tom Cruise moment.”

Ruden trots back down to the courtroom and quickly updates the judge and DA. She returns to the office triumphant. The bond won’t be revoked yet and the case will be held for tomorrow.

10. “It wasn’t me”


After lunch, Ruden makes the short walk to the jail where two of her Felony Mental Health Court clients are in custody for new charges.

This is routine. The probation program is so long and serves people with such entrenched problems that it’s not unusual for them to get arrested along the way. But it does invert her defense style. Her default is to fight a case by forcing the state to prove guilt, as it’s supposed to do. In the probation program, however, it’s considered more important to admit mistakes than to avoid them, so fighting a new charge is risky—even if the person is innocent.

“So these fellows who’ve picked up new law violations,” Ruden says, “their best chance of staying on probation and in the court is to say, ‘Yeah, that happened. I was going through this; I was going through that.’ But what if it didn’t? What if they’re not guilty?”

Today poses a special challenge. One of Ruden’s clients, Mr. P, is charged with “public lewdness.” She’s sure of his innocence—both because “it’s not his style” and because the suspect is described as Hispanic and her client is white. She doesn’t want to add a sex charge to the rap sheet of a man who’s never had one.

In a concrete room maybe three feet by five, Ruden sits on a stool facing a thick plastic window and waits for Mr. P. Several minutes pass before a guard buzzes him in and Ruden picks up the bulky phone handset to deliver some bad news.

Before he was picked up, Mr. P had been living in a subsidized extended-stay hotel—sort of an advanced halfway house. It’s the kind of resource the Felony Mental Health Court support team helps probationers get into because if they have housing, they’re less likely to be arrested for trespass and a host of other small charges that can add up. But the hotel is paid weekly and Mr. P was in jail, so he was evicted. “Fortunately, your girlfriend was able to get in and get all your things,” Ruden says gently.

Mr. P’s face registers nothing—no surprise, relief, or distress. He just nods. She moves on to the evidence in the new case. “The witness didn’t give police a written statement,” she says. He also identified Mr. P not from a lineup but because police had shown him a cell-phone picture of Mr. P and asked if that was the same man.

Ruden gives him a moment to absorb this and says she hopes to get the case dismissed.

Again, Mr. P barely reacts. He just says, “It wasn’t me.”

11. “We’re counselors at law”


Before court convenes, Ruden and the rest of the Felony Mental Health Court support team meet to discuss their clients’ progress. They pass around and sign a birthday card for a client and puzzle over how to get Mr. P back into some kind of housing once he’s released.

The meeting is long but lively. It could be drudgery, tossing around acronyms and program names while trying to figure out which hoops to jump through to solve, even briefly, what seem like unsolvable problems. But it’s not, because everyone is excited.

Ruden says this is what got her hooked on public service. “As much as I initially enjoyed the adrenaline of competing and of trial and the courtroom,” she says, “the aspect that appeals more to me is the job of counselor, because we aren’t just attorneys. We’re counselors at law.” The challenge she loves now, she says, “is just talking people through their situation and trying to figure out what in their life needs addressing.”

She loves the toughest cases most. “You’re dealing with people who have a lot of dysfunction. Whether it is economic dysfunction or mental illness or they’re in social situations that are not conducive to being healthy or successful—those same people that I have really enjoyed talking to and helping, aren’t really hiring lawyers. They can’t afford to.”

Thanks to the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, they don’t have to.

12. “It’s gonna get easier” 


Felony Mental Health Court itself is not very court-like at all. Everyone stands when the judge enters in his black robes, but after that, the feeling is of a small reunion.

The judge reads names of the week’s All Stars. One by one, he calls them to the bench and asks them about their week, giving words of encouragement.

The woman he’s speaking to had some setbacks the previous week but is now an All Star. “You’re kind of on your feet again,” he says. “This is the mark that I want you to hit every week. You can’t coast. You can’t fall into that trap. It’s hard, but it’s worth doing and it’s important. You’ve shown what you can do this week. Now it’s a matter of doing it consistently.”

The woman nods, listening, close to tears. “It’s gonna get easier,” says the judge. “You have to trust me on that.”

Ruden sits at a table and watches as, one by one, her clients approach the bench to receive not punishment but a pep talk—or the comfort or cajoling they need. She doesn’t intervene and there’s no argument to make. Her clients speak for themselves.

The only other person at her table is the prosecutor. And in this instance, they’re sitting on the same side.


* * *

Emily DePrang writes about criminal justice and public health for The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, VICE, and others. Follow her on Twitter @deprangy.

Patrick Michels is an Austin-based journalist and photographer, and a staff writer at the Texas Observer.

The Jail Without Bars

“Six months after I became sheriff, the most dangerous inmate in the jail escaped and was gone for 10 days,” says former Sheriff Gary Raney. “It was a big wake-up call and I realized we’d gotten complacent. We needed big changes.”

In law enforcement for 31 years and sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, for 10, Gary Raney looks the part: 6’3″, with thick dark brown hair and posture that shames others into standing up straight. But he also smiles more than you might expect a sheriff to, and he admits mistakes.

After the escape, Raney and his staff revamped the Idaho jail’s mission and culture to focus on four specific goals: safety of staff, security of the facility, well-being of inmates, and meeting/exceeding stakeholder expectations. The sheriff’s office also encourages staff members to find creative ways to get things done. One sergeant, wanting to enhance staff safety, asked his deputies to “think like inmates.” He gave his deputies the same items that each inmate receives upon processing into the jail, including a uniform and a plastic bag containing a comb, toothbrush, and toothpaste, and then challenged them to see who could craft the smallest, most lethal weapon. Another asked deputies to figure out how to “escape,” and so they did, which helped identify building security flaws.

Neuberg Vera Institute Spot1When he describes this new strategic approach, Raney sounds in some ways more like a CEO than the former head of a local government agency—in fact, he coauthored a book with business leaders, a football coach, and a dancer on how to improve his organization (Wise Beyond Your Field, 2013). But Ada County’s initiative isn’t all about business. It’s also about creating a culture that allows the jail to deliver better results: for taxpayers, employees, and for inmates, too.

Employees are empowered to solve problems up and down the line, both inside the jail and out in the field. One Saturday night, a patrol officer ticketed two teenagers for speeding and then visited each household the next day, on his own time. The officer talked with the parents and kids, then tore up the tickets, reasoning that the lesson was clear and the impact was stronger than just writing a ticket.

The result of building such a culture is a jail and a system that others want to learn from.

As Raney says of the office he left when he retired last year, “We’re in a human service industry where we’re all a team. We help each other out. We also try to give the deputies autonomy to try things. We can always undo it if it doesn’t work.”

* * *

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has a 1,217-bed jail, about the size of 3.5 football fields, including an 88-bed hospital. If you stand on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol building in Boise and look southwest, the jail is less than three miles away. Most locals who speed past it daily barely notice the sand-colored, two-story building surrounded by a chicken-wire fence with concertina wire on top. The jail books about 15,000 people annually, but on average, roughly 900 beds are full on any given night. At the Ada County Jail, most people post bond and leave in a few days, but if they stay, the average time is 34 days. Some who have been convicted may serve their entire sentences in jail, which is nothing like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Ada County Jail is typically quiet, with uncluttered hallways, steel mesh instead of bars, and no rancid smells. It was recently highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report as exemplary, because of low use-of-force incidents. The numbers were so low that the report’s researcher initially thought the jail’s data were wrong. In 2015, it was one of 20 U.S. jails to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant to find ways to keep people out of jail, including through diversion programs, which focus on keeping people out of the prosecution system altogether. Instead of jail, first-time or low-risk offenders may be diverted into a program that helps them with problems like substance use or unemployment. This prevents them from entering the system and reduces the likelihood of getting into trouble again.

Still, this is a jail. Some inmates make tattoo kits on the sly, trade commissary, try to bait deputies, and ask for medicines they don’t need. Many are mentally ill and some are violent, so there’s always the chance of “a career-ending injury.”

“It’s stressful,” Raney admits. “Some people on the outside see being a jail guard as derogatory, so it’s tough to feel proud sometimes. Twelve-hour shifts and overtime are hard on home life. And if there is a bad injury, you’ve really got no other skills to transfer to a different field.”

Raney knows why people choose the work. “Good people enter the profession for good reasons. We can make a difference and save a life.”

The former sheriff now consults for the U.S. Department of Justice to help other jails improve and is helping design a diversion program on the national level. “We want to help people do well, and finding ways to keep them from being in jail is a start.”

But if they must be in jail, he wants it to be like Ada County.

* * *

“It’s not easy to hang your arms at your side. The belt gets in the way.”

Jail deputy M. Yamada-Anderson, a 14-year veteran at the sheriff’s office, stands with her feet shoulder-width apart and her hands resting on her belt buckle, which is the size of half a deck of cards. Like all deputies, she goes by her last name in the jail, with staff and inmates. The staff do the same for inmates, calling them Mr. Smith or Ms. Norman.

“I’m wearing maybe seven to eight extra pounds, not counting the Glock, which is another three to five pounds,” says Yamada-Anderson. “The newer belts have padding, but I still get back pain after wearing the thing 50 hours a week for years.”

Yamada-Anderson contradicts many people’s expectations about jail deputies. She has a college degree in philosophy, was one of Idaho’s first applicants for a license to marry another woman, and sees jail work as akin to being in sales.Neuberg Vera Institute Spot2

“I don’t tell people what to do,” says Yamada-Anderson. “I ask. I convince them it’s to their benefit to do what I ask. They’ve already lost a lot, so I don’t want to take it all from them.” In the dorms, for example, if an inmate stays in her pajamas rather than changing into her jail daytime clothing, Yamada-Anderson will talk to her about how getting dressed makes you feel better about yourself. She and other staff members know that they can’t just order; they need to give reasons for what they ask inmates to do. This is a first step to returning to the community.

“If you can’t do jail right, how will you do it in the community?”

As Yamada-Anderson says, being arrested epitomizes loss. If you stay overnight in jail, gone are your clothes, your wallet, and your wedding ring. Forget controlling your schedule or your privacy. You wear a uniform, share a room with strangers, and eat when someone else tells you to.

“Jail is the ultimate equalizer,” she says. “Everything is stripped away from you. No makeup. No jewelry. The same uniform. The only thing that separates people is the quality of their tattoos and the quality of their teeth.”

But it’s hard for deputies as well, especially shifting cultures from inside to outside the jail. “Where else do you get training about not beating your spouse or how to keep from killing yourself? We have different currency, a different language, and different laws inside the jail. It can wear you down.”

But she has stayed in the job, partly because of positive feedback—like what happens to her at least monthly away from the jail.

“A former inmate will stop me on the street to tell me she’s doing well. Makes me feel good. We help people in a strange way.”

Like other staff members, Yamada-Anderson tells stories of how taking a little extra time to talk with an inmate or even the simple respect that she shows can make a difference for someone going through a rough time in the jail. If she can do a good job on the inside, she figures, maybe the inmate will do better on the outside.

* * *

Nurse Ed Walker looks like the actor Robbie Coltrane who plays Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films—large and self-assured, with a more cultivated gray-and-black beard and haircut. He shifted his NFL football allegiance from the Rams to the Buccaneers, partly to support an underdog, and largely because of the pirate ship on the field during games. Walker, who has three silver loops in his left ear, admits he’s a bit of a prankster with colleagues, and says he’s “living his dream” working at the jail.

“I like giving health care to people who otherwise probably wouldn’t have access to it, people who haven’t had a lot of breaks in life.”

Before nursing, Walker drove a truck for 25 years, delivering beer, paper, and building supply products, and working up to 90 hours a week behind the wheel. After he and his wife and two children left California for Idaho, he cared for his kids for six months before entering nursing school at age 43.

“I was always fascinated by those medical TV shows. Couldn’t watch enough of them. So I decided, if I was ever going to change, this was the time. I became the ‘super student’: perfect attendance and grades.”

Given that several relatives had worked in law enforcement in Los Angeles, Walker was comfortable with the culture. At the jail, he meshed that culture with nursing.

“I tell my patients—and I always call them patients, never inmates—that I will never lie to them. Sometimes they ask why I’m listening to them, because no one else does. It’s part of how I take care of them. After a while, they learn that if we say something to them here, we mean it.”

But on the outside, not everyone understands what he does.

“Some people ask why I’m not a ‘real nurse.’ I tell them that I save lives and take care of people they ignore.”

Many of the ignored are returning patients—often alcoholics, homeless, and cut off from families. They lose hope, jobs, and end up at the jail in worse shape each time Walker sees them.

The better moments for him are when he knows he saved a life or helped a patient. “We had a chronic alcoholic who was deaf. I built a rapport with him over time. One night the deputies and nurse on duty said he wasn’t cooperating on his health assessment. I went to see him and he just didn’t seem right. Pale. Shutting down. I got him to let me take his vital signs and his heart rate was 36, really low. I checked the records and it had been dropping for two weeks. So I sent him to the hospital.”

The emergency room doctor called later and asked Walker how he’d known about the patient’s heart condition.

“I didn’t know. Then the doctor said if I’d not sent him to the hospital, the patient would have died in 24 hours.” The patient received a pacemaker two days later.

When Walker can help someone look to the future, that’s even better. “A young man, drunk, on opioids, had a car accident and killed his friend. He said his life was over. Nineteen. I said, ‘You’ve made a mistake and you can make excuses—the drugs, the alcohol—or you can accept responsibility, take the penalty, and get on with your life.’ ”

Walker learned that six months later, the young man was clean, sober, and doing his time.

“He’s got a good outlook on his future. This is not TV. We’re here to take care of people and help them succeed.”

* * *

Deputy G. Ellington stands in the jail’s transition dorm area, three rooms housing 41 patients (25 men and 16 women) who have mental illnesses or are recovering from health problems. Ellington is slight, with gold-auburn chin-length hair framing her face.

She joined the jail eight years ago, after 20 years in retail.

“I wanted to finish my college degree and was tired of seeing people shoplift and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she says. “So I went into criminal justice.”

When she compares what she likes about the two fields, it boils down to “interacting with customers.”

“It’s the same at the jail—they’ve just made some mistakes. But it’s still a person you’re working with.”

Ellington says she still “talks a lot,” as she did in retail.

Neuberg Vera Institute Header“I ask how the day is going. I have an open policy on my desk in the dorms. People can come up and talk to me.”

The Ada County Jail has six “open” dorms. In low-security areas, one deputy oversees 92 inmates, on 12-hour shifts, four days a week. Many visitors—civilians as well as officials from other jails around the country—marvel that one deputy can manage so many inmates.

“It’s all about respect and how you approach them. If you’re confident, tell people what the expectations are, and don’t show weakness, it works out fine. Yes, the men try to play us and the women try to play the male deputies. Some try to bait us. But we never take it personal.”

Unlike patrol, where spikes of action and adrenaline disrupt long periods of calm, jail deputies maintain constant “relaxed vigilance.”

“It’s an unknown here. We never know what will happen. So we watch.”

Ellington looks into the men’s dorm through the large glass windows that let the inmates see her as well. “The guys in there watch out for each other. Usually there’s an older man who’s the ‘dorm daddy.’ He’ll notice if someone needs something and help him get it from us. They are helping others for their own benefit or because that’s just who they are.”

Ellington watches for anything out of the ordinary, often body language.

“See that guy in the back, the older one? He’s been sick. He’s just sitting there. I’m keeping my eye on him.” Today she seems more worried about whether he’s recovering than whether he’ll cause trouble.

But mostly, Ellington says she tries to brighten the day for inmates.

“Today there’s one gal who’s having a hard time—upset because she has 20 more days. I told her to think of it as ‘one sleep at a time.’ Since ‘sleeps’ go faster than the days, she should think about 20 ‘wake-ups’ versus 20 days. It’s easier to handle.”

* * *

Kate Pape, a sheriff’s office social worker and health services administrator, is partial to funky multicolored reading glasses. She leans forward and shoves her glasses up on her head.

“I remember talking to one gentleman who was accused of an especially heinous crime. He was so soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He wanted to read me something and reached for his reading glasses. I remember that gesture, reaching for the glasses, because it made him seem so human.”

Still, he had committed an awful crime.

“But that’s what makes this job so interesting,” Pape continues. “The contradiction of crime and empathy.”

After graduate school, Pape worked in Los Angeles County, home to one of the largest and most diverse inmate populations in the United States, first with juvenile sex offenders, then in the jail’s “Twin Towers,” working with inmates who had mental health issues, and then on the jail mental health emergency response team at the North County Correctional Facility “Supermax.”

“When you walk through a jail, you either feel comfortable or you don’t,” says Pape. “I never felt claustrophobic or depressed, and don’t mind the slamming doors. When I go to work at the jail, it’s like a haven. I know I can handle the problems.”

She and her husband left L.A. in 2005 for Boise, seeing it as a good place to raise their children. She joined the Ada County Jail and “felt like I was home.”

“The criminal justice piece adds texture to what social workers do. In a jail, people have multiple losses, not as clear as hospital patients who have a presenting illness. It’s more layered. If you’re in jail, something in your life is broken and it’s not always clear what. Your criminal charge doesn’t explain who you are. There’s always a backstory with more depth.”

In jail, people are at their most vulnerable, the lowest point in their lives. Pape tries to remember that “there’s more to a person than the worst he has ever done.”

“We can’t change the whole constellation of planets in their lives. But if we can be one planet that shows care and kindness, that may make a difference. Sometimes, the simple act of getting water for someone can make an impact.”

A few weeks before this interview, she met a man on suicide watch who had been arrested on a parole violation.

“A great big guy, in the yellow uniform [denoting suicide watch]. He said he’d lost all hope. He’d gotten a job, had a girlfriend, was working to see more of his kids and then [the arrest] happened. Made him depressed, frustrated. He wanted to give up, to kill himself. We talked for about half an hour, got around to what he did have to live for, and there was a change in him. By the end of our talk, I felt like he wouldn’t try to kill himself.”

So what motivates her?

“We instill hope.”

* * *

N.K. Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University in Idaho. You can reach her at

 Vinnie Neuberg is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and cartoonist. See his work at

Fighting for Face Time

Part I: Mothers on the Inside

Tonya Kamara, 54, seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, DC, with her one-year-old grandson, Anthony, and her 26-year-old nephew, who is between jobs. Her two daughters also live with her—when they are not incarcerated. Anthony’s mother, April, age 32, and her 25-year-old sister, Latonya, both struggle with a history of mental health problems and drug addiction, which has led to cycles of crime and recidivism.

Last fall, April was at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), DC’s jail where women are held while awaiting trial and serving time for misdemeanors. The jail is just three miles from where Tonya Kamara lives, but arranging a visit was still daunting for her, a retired woman who is the primary caregiver to a toddler. She also has a son who is serving a life sentence in the federal system because the District of Columbia does not have a state facility designated to house its prisoners. The possibility of ever visiting her son is slim to none. She had a big enough challenge visiting April at the CTF while helping her younger daughter rebuild her life.

Tonya Kamara is driven back home after visiting her daughter April at the jail. Ms. Kamara was distraught about her daughter’s behavior following the visit. April has a drug addiction problem that often makes her verbally and physically abusive.
Tonya Kamara is driven back home after visiting her daughter April last fall at the jail. After the visit, Kamara was distraught about her daughter’s behavior. April has a history of mental health problems and drug addiction, and is often verbally and physically abusive.

“My children are grown,” Tonya Kamara says, “but here I am trying to take care of my grandson now. I don’t want him in the street and I definitely don’t want him in the system.” Her strength and faith are evident. She longs to see her daughters healthy and whole. She longs for peace in her life.

* * *

As a formerly incarcerated woman who served 18 years in prison, I know firsthand how important family visits can be. When I went to prison my children were three years old and 10 months old. By the time I was released they were 19 and 21. My family took on the responsibility of raising my children; financially and emotionally this was a huge burden. Being able to participate in visitation allowed me to maintain some semblance of a bond with my children. I remember being in the visiting room when my son asked me what crime I had been convicted of. I could see this was something he was struggling with. He wanted to ask me face-to-face. I was grateful to be able to have that conversation with my son because he deserved to hear the truth straight from me.

I spent my first seven months at DC Jail [the Central Detention Facility] awaiting trial. At the time, the early 1990s, I was able to participate in noncontact visits. I met with my loved ones in a visiting room with very thick glass separating us. We spoke through a telephone. Then, while at CTF for the next five years, I received contact visits every two to three months. My children were young and even though I was in Southeast DC, literally right around the corner from some of my family members, facilitating visitation was an added hardship. Traveling with toddlers is difficult and carving out time to visit a loved one in prison while attending to the daily needs of children is a burden for caregivers. Some simply cannot afford the cost of transportation when loved ones are in local jails, let alone when family members are incarcerated hundreds of miles from home.

In Washington, D.C., the city government operates the Central Detention Facility, also known as the DC Jail. The city also contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a nationwide private operator of prisons, jails, and detention centers, to operate the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), which primarily houses women and juvenile offenders.
In Washington, DC, the city government operates the Central Detention Facility, also known as the DC Jail. The city also contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America, a nationwide private operator of prisons, jails, and detention centers, to operate the Correctional Treatment Facility, which primarily houses women and juvenile offenders.

In 1998 I was sent into the federal system. It was a better environment for me to serve such a lengthy sentence, but visits became more infrequent. I was in Danbury, Connecticut, eight hours from home by car. I saw my children only once a year. Friends I met in jail who had since been released often became the liaisons who helped facilitate my visits with my children. If it were not for some of the women who served time alongside me, I might have seen my children even less often.

Being able to see them at all throughout my incarceration made a world of difference. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be without even those inconsistent visits.

* * *

Today, I am one of the founding members of a nonprofit called The W.I.R.E.—Women Involved in Reentry Efforts. I met April while conducting a reentry workshop at CTF, and she told me about the difficulties her mother had arranging visits. I jumped at the opportunity to help the Kamara family with a visit because of my own personal experience.

Tonya Kamara, 54, and her grandson Antonio, age 1, walk to the entrance of the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) in Washington, DC, to visit Tonya’s daughter and Antonio’s mother, April.
Tonya Kamara, 54, and her grandson Antonio, age 1, walk to the entrance of the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, DC, to visit April, Tonya’s daughter and Antonio’s mother.

When a friend who is serving 30 years in Texas asked me to bring her 18-year-old son to visit her, I didn’t hesitate to get him there. Donnell had not seen his mom in 10 years. He’s a good kid who has never been in trouble and recently graduated from high school. He was mourning and wanted to see his mom terribly. I understood what most people don’t: simply providing opportunities for visitation is not enough. Many women in prison need a person in the middle who can help facilitate a visit. Caregivers need support from concerned citizens who are willing to provide financial assistance, transportation, and/or chaperoning during visits. I firmly believe that those people who want to help improve visitation are the key to strengthening family ties with incarcerated women and their children.

In 2012, when I learned that DC Jail was eliminating noncontact visits and replacing them with video visitation, I thought the community would be outraged. “There’s no way the community will allow that to happen,” I thought. I was wrong; the video visitation program was implemented. The goal was to save money and make visits safer by reducing the amount of contraband inmates receive from visitors. I was astonished. Not only are face-to-face visits important for incarcerated people, but children with incarcerated parents often suffer from depression, display behavioral problems, and end up abusing drugs and in prison themselves. Providing an opportunity for young children to visit with their parents will help them cope with the impact of the separation, and video is certainly not enough.

—Lashonia Etheridge-Bey

Antonio, who was up well past his bedtime, fell asleep after visiting his mother in jail. He is carried into the house by Tonya Kamara’s 26-year-old nephew, who is living with her while he is in between jobs.
Antonio, who was up well past his bedtime, fell asleep after visiting his mother in jail last fall. He is carried into the house by Tonya Kamara’s 26-year-old nephew, who is living with her while he is between jobs.
Tonya Kamara holds a photograph of her daughter April (in the middle), who is currently incarcerated at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) in Washington, D.C., for drug-related offenses.
Tonya Kamara holds a photograph of her daughter April (center), who was incarcerated for drug-related offenses last fall at DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility.
In her apartment in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Tonya Kamara talks about how difficult it is for her to visit her daughter in jail, given the facility’s distance from her home, the difficulty of using public transportation, and the need to care for her grandson Antonio during the visit.
In her apartment in the Anacostia neighborhood, Tonya Kamara talks about how difficult it is for her to visit her daughter in jail.
Tonya Kamara holds her grandson, Antonio, whom she has been taking care of since his mother was incarcerated. Because of her daughter’s ongoing drug addiction and erratic behavior, which Ms. Kamara believes threatens Antonio’s safety, she is applying for permanent custody of Antonio.
Tonya Kamara holds her grandson, Antonio, whom she has cared for since his mother was recently incarcerated.

* * *

Part II: Talking Through Glass

“Jail is not meant for no one,” says Molonte Herman Wooden, who was born in 1984, raised in Washington, DC, and has spent time in jail on multiple occasions. He has experienced facilities that allowed, at various times, contact visits, only noncontact visits, and only virtual video visits.

Molonte Herman Wooden poses for a portrait.

“Contact visits…are much more humane,” Wooden says. “When I was in DC Jail [the Central Detention Facility], my father came to visit me, and I felt like a caged animal because it was through a glass and I was not able to touch him, to give him a hug, or shake his hand to say, ‘Thank you.’ I had to blow kisses behind the glass and hand gesture ‘I love you.’

“I felt much better to have my visits be contact visits; I slept better that night and thought better that day. It really made me think about my behavior so I could again have a visit.”Zara_Molonte002

During contact visits, “I was able to communicate with my girlfriend without Plexiglas between us. There are rules you have to follow: you have to stay seated with your hands on top of a table; you can see the face of your visitor, make eye contact, smell their fragrance; and you can kiss them as they arrive and before they leave.

“It was so sad when they introduced monitors. I would recommend no one to have a visit on a monitor. Visitors can see what’s happening in the background; there is no privacy. I witnessed guys massaging their private parts, doing body language behind the inmate’s back, or they would break into a fight and the visit would be cut short.”

In July of 2015, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to reinstate noncontact visits for inmates, provided they first demonstrate 30 days without any infractions.


* * *

Part III: The Power of Face Time

Taylar Nuevelle.

Taylar Nuevelle, 46, of Washington, DC, describes herself as “a mother, a survivor, a returning citizen, and a writer.” Nuevelle was incarcerated for four and a half years, including time spent in the DC Jail complex [the Central Detention Facility] and in federal prison. She now works part time as a benefits specialist at the DC Jail Advocacy Project of the city’s University Legal Services Protection and Advocacy Program.

While in DC Jail, Nuevelle was allowed contact visits. “You can have a visitation with up to five adults a week. At that time I had a lot of support. I had a partner and many friends and relatives who would come to visit. You can sit at a table and share food. I could kiss my partner; I could hug her; I could hug my friends; I could hold hands with my friends throughout the visit. I lived for that once-a-week moment!

Zara_Taylar005“[At that time], men could only visit through Plexiglas. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot imagine not being able to touch.’

“Then I got shipped to Northern Neck, and my partner traveled an hour to two hours to see me, and she had to visit me through Plexiglas. We would put our hands on the Plexiglas to feel…you know it warms up so you can feel the heat of that person; even that mattered to me!

“I am very excited that the [DC Jail] is moving back to face-to-face, but I have my concerns that you have to earn it….I think the Mayor has set up a situation that looks good, but in fact when you read the fine print it’s just giving the officers the right to say ‘I can take that [visitation right] from you.’…I don’t think you will see an increase in these face-to-face visits.Zara_Taylar006

“You know, we keep talking about rehabilitation, but if you make it difficult for families, they are not going to visit. Why do you want to go through all of this trouble to visit your loved one over a television set?…So you are creating situations where people are not having visits and you don’t get that contact with the outside world….Visitation is a big deal….I think video visiting is very, very punitive, I think it is inhumane.”

Interviews with Taylar Nuevelle and Molonte Herman Wooden were conducted by Gabriela Bulisova.

* * *

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, DC. Over the past five years, she has focused on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially about the impact on families. Follow her at

Lashonia Etheridge-Bey is a 42-year-old Washingtonian who was released from incarceration in 2011. She was sentenced to 20-60 years for a double homicide. She is currently employed as the female reentry coordinatory at the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, where she supports women who are returning from incarceration. She is a senior at Trinity Washington University, where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in human relations.

A Helping Hand on the Way Home

Although research on the role of volunteers in jails and prisons is limited, recent studies suggest that visits from community volunteers to incarcerated people may reduce the likelihood of re-offending. CeCe Gannon is one such volunteer. After her own son’s brush with jail, Gannon, then a therapist-in-training, realized how many people reentering society after incarceration—whether brief or extended—desperately need someone to talk to. She decided she could be that someone.

CeCe Gannon at her home in Forestville, California.

When Gannon’s son was 16, he was arrested at school for his involvement in the sale of a controlled substance, expelled for six months, and eventually sentenced to probation and community service. While he was being held at juvenile hall, Gannon visited him, and that opened her eyes to some of the barriers other people face while incarcerated, specifically, “There wasn’t anyone for him to talk to,” she says, recalling the lack of therapeutic services. “It stuck in the back of my mind when he got out. So when I had an opportunity and I went back there, the magnetic pull was incredibly strong.”

As a longtime teacher with a doctorate in psychology, Gannon began a second late-career act as a practicing therapist, and in time became a volunteer at the jail in Sonoma County, California. For her internship, she chose a juvenile hall, where young people await court hearings or placement in long-term care. She worked for more than two years, long enough to watch some people she had helped as teens get in trouble as adults and cycle back into the system. She has seen firsthand, over and over again, what a lack of rehabilitative services does to young people. “The nonviolent drug user who has gone to prison at 18, 19, 20—once these youngsters go to prison,” she says, “they don’t come back the same.”

* * *

John Mesker remembers his initial impression when he first met Gannon at the juvenile hall in the mid-1990s: “Who is this hippie lady?”

Gannon connected with Mesker, then 15, in a way other adults at the facility hadn’t been able to, despite his confounded first reaction. She taught him how to use visualizations and his breath to calm down.

“She wanted to do art therapy,” Mesker says. “Here I am trying to prove myself as a violent person, and she’s asking me, ‘Do you like Belgian chocolate?’ ‘Do you read books?’ ”

John Mesker who struggles with addiction and has been incarcerated several times since he was a teenager for crimes relating to his addiction, in Howarth Park, Santa Rosa, California, November 19th, 2015. AJ and John were in the Sonoma County Jail together and since this past August have been at a residential treatment center.
John Mesker, a patient of Gannon’s who struggles with addiction and has been incarcerated several times since he was a teenager.

It was around this time that Mesker was made a ward of the court. His mother—who struggled with addiction—was no longer allowed to write or visit. “Cece was my first dose of a normal person,” Mesker says, reflecting on the drug use that was a backdrop to his childhood and the bouts of homelessness and instability that plagued his family.

After her internship at the juvenile hall, Gannon started going into the county jail with the support of a Catholic organization and later through a project called Earth Hope, cofounded by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame.

She now volunteers her therapeutic services, acting as a reentry counselor and teaching four courses at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California. Three are correspondence classes. The fourth she teaches in person, and its focus is cosmology, which she explains as a connection of science and spirituality, in which she weaves the history of the universe into self-inquiry exercises. “I’m here to help you wake up everything inside you to the best of my ability,” she says of her students. “The best insurance that they are going to do something differently is if they’re inside themselves more consciously.”

in front of the Sonoma County Jail, July 26th, 2015.
A tree outside the Sonoma County Jail.

Gannon strives to make her class a respite from the otherwise stressful experience of jail. “I don’t corner people there ever,” she says. “They get cornered all day long.” She says that keeping the class interactive and varied helps her hold the men’s interest. She may do a 15-minute presentation, then show an excerpt from a DVD. She uses handouts. She breaks the students into racially mixed groups and has them work together. She never gives tests and she always plays music. These weekly interactions inspire her, Gannon says. “I’m just as excited going in every Tuesday as I was years ago, because something touches me and hopefully, I touch something.”

Friends and family members have asked over the years if she’s ever afraid at the jail, but Gannon says she rarely is. Instead, she emphasizes how much she relates to her students. “When that shell comes off, they are rich inside,” she says. “We’re not dealing with stupid people. We are dealing with a lot of addiction and a lot of ADD and ADHD and a lot of learning disabilities.”

She wants the men she works with to understand their potential and sometimes urges them to remember how young they were when they started using drugs harmfully. Many were in their early teens and are stuck at that age emotionally, she says.

“Who has kids?” she asks her class. A number of the men raise their hands. Then she asks, “Would you let your 13-year-old tell you when to go to bed, what to eat, what to do?” Inevitably, she’s met with a chorus of “Hell, no.” She takes them a step further: “So why are you letting the teenager inside you run your lives?”

“Then they sit up. They’re like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” she says. “That’s a big aha.”

* * *

John Mesker, who met CeCe Gannon in a juvenile hall in the mid-1990s.

Much of Gannon’s work as a volunteer has focused on helping people get through the reentry process. She knows from years of experience how exhausting it is. “You have people coming from a very secure position where they’re told what to do and how to do it,” she says of jails and prisons. “Outside, there’s almost no help.” So Gannon has tried to fill that gap, driving people who don’t have licenses and helping them secure food and clothing. She helps them fill out Medi-Cal applications (for California’s Medicaid program) and guides those who need it through the months-long process of applying for Supplemental Security Income. Now 71, Gannon says she’s not taking on any more new people to help through the reentry process.

Her relationship with Mesker is ongoing. Over the past 20 years, Gannon has seen him many times, through highs and lows. She visited him when, as a teenager, he was sent to a boot camp in Nevada, four hours away from home. She counseled him after he was convicted of his first adult felony at the age of 18 and served a one-year sentence at the jail. She helped him enroll in junior college, taught him how to shop for groceries, and got him ready for his driver’s license test.

But it’s not only the logistical hurdles that people must overcome once they’re involved in the criminal justice system, Gannon says. It’s also the fragile emotional state in which many recently released people find themselves. “They’re falling apart frequently,” she says of the men she helps through the transition. “You have PTSD, but now you have to go in this group [to stand in line for benefits] and you’re sweating and having a panic attack.”

Cece Gannon in her backyard in Forestville, California, November 19th, 2015.
Cece Gannon in her backyard in Forestville, California.

For Mesker, it was his addiction to amphetamines and alcohol that posed the greatest challenge. After a fatal hit-and-run that sent him to prison for the first time, he realized the impact of his addiction not only on himself but others. “Up until this point, I could always say, ‘My drug use is affecting me.’ I can’t say that anymore,” Mesker says. He spent 90 days at San Quentin State Prison being evaluated by psychologists to determine how he’d be sentenced. The eventual deal, secured through the help of a private attorney: a suspended four-year sentence and six months at a residential drug treatment facility. Violating these terms means doing the time. “This is the first time I’ve ever gone through a court case and had treatment attached to it,” Mesker says.

Now, after three months at a halfway house, Mesker is settling into the routines of his new job as a plumber. He attends 12-step meetings four times a week to help manage his addiction and relies heavily on a friend and ally, a 23-year-old fellow resident at the house.

After their court-ordered stay in treatment is finished, the two have plans to move to a sober living environment (SLE) together, a place where there’s a curfew and mandated Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Mesker has made a commitment to Gannon that he’ll stay at an SLE for at least 90 days.

Fig tree in Cece Gannon's backyard in Forestville, California, November 19th, 2015.
A fig tree in CeCe Gannon’s backyard in Forestville, California.

Without affordable drug treatment programs and greater institutional support from the criminal justice system for reentry services, however, Gannon says it’s inevitable that recidivism in the United States will continue to be high. The best way to combat that, she believes, is to ensure that people who are incarcerated have access to basic reentry services like those described above, classes in budgeting and parenting, and the kind of values-shaping human development she teaches at the county jail. She points to prisons in Norway and Finland—models that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and retribution—and, closer to home, to compassionate reentry programs such as those offered by Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.

“I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the potential of rehabilitation,” Gannon says. “The [incarceration] system has to start over from scratch.”

* * *

Dani McClain reports on gender, race, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @drmcclain.

Talia Herman is a freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Inmate Turned Advocate

Dolfinette Martin was 24 when she was arrested for shoplifting $300 worth of clothes at a New Orleans Macy’s. This was back in 1994. Five months pregnant, she was taken into custody on an attempted theft charge and placed in a holding cell for three days before getting moved to general population at the Orleans Parish Prison, a beleaguered county jail notorious for its inhumane living conditions, poor facilities, lack of sanitation and dire medical care.

“Prenatal care consisted of graham crackers and a pint of milk,” Martin recalls. “I never saw a doctor once.”

Because Martin was not able to post bail, she remained in the jail for 60 days—the maximum time prosecutors in Louisiana have to reach a charging decision while a defendant is incarcerated.

On the 60th day, prosecutors decided to drop the charge, and Martin, by then seven months pregnant, was finally able to go home. A week later she gave birth, prematurely, to her fifth child, a baby girl.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug-related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera’s New Orleans Pretrial Services. Here, she stands for a portrait in her office in December 2015.

It wouldn’t be the last time Martin landed in jail. Over the course of the next 10 years, the young mother fell into a vicious cycle with the law, struggling with substance use and dealing with the criminal justice system, tacking on multiple shoplifting charges while trying to provide for her family.

“It started with me as a teenage girl, watching my mother struggle to pay the bills, to going to school one day and watching the dope dealers and watching what seemed to be money being made,” Martin says.

Martin was born and raised in the B.W. Cooper housing development, a public housing complex on the edge of New Orleans’s notoriously violent Central City neighborhood and known by most by its former name, the “Calliope.” Her father left home when Martin was five, forcing her mother to raise Martin and her older sister alone.

Though Martin was a strong student with better than average grades, “there was nobody there to celebrate that stuff,” she recalls. “Nobody in my hood told me that I could go to college. I thought college was for white people…or the Cosby kids.”

Martin began selling drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. She eventually began using, and what started as a recreational marijuana habit quickly escalated to powder and later crack-cocaine use.

“Naively, it was exciting,” Martin says now. “I didn’t really know the consequences. I saw the money coming in….I saw my mother not really struggling for once because I was able to contribute.”

At 15, Martin dropped out of school and left home with her boyfriend, who at the time was on the run for a murder charge.

At 18, Martin gave birth to her first child, a baby boy, and a year later she entered a program where she was treated for her crack addiction. She managed to stay clean for four years, which she attributed, in part, to becoming a mother.

“Something changed in me, I don’t know, maybe because I was responsible for someone else now,” Martin says.

“I was introduced to Narcotics Anonymous,” she explains. “I knew all the steps…but the number one thing I knew I fell victim to: relationships.” Her boyfriend at the time was using drugs and in time Martin started using again.

“Trying to save him, I lost myself in the mix,” she says. “ I needed a release—a comforter—and I knew what the dope would do: it would numb whatever it was that was going on.”

The years that followed were dark ones, as Martin fell back into familiar habits—using drugs, shoplifting, and living in and out of jail cells, including the 60-day jail stint after the shoplifting arrest.

Martin stands near the site of her childhood home in New Orleans.

“I realized…that I wasn’t just addicted to drugs—I had become addicted to shoplifting too,” Martin says. “I was unwed, uneducated…and then there was substance abuse. I really didn’t know where to turn.”

In 2003 Martin was arrested again for shoplifting and sentenced to 30 months. She served half of her sentence and was released on conditional parole in May 2004. Less than a year later, in January 2005, she was arrested on shoplifting charges yet again, but this time found herself facing hard time. Because she was on parole, and due to Louisiana’s strict habitual offender laws, Martin received a seven-year prison sentence. She was 35 years old.

* * *

Martin began serving her sentence in the spring of 2005. She was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating the only city she had ever called home and decimating the physical and social fabric of her neighborhood. She would have to wait months to find out whether her five children were still alive.

Martin was also in prison when all three of her sons were injured by gunfire: when Rondal, then age 20, was shot in the back; when Ronald, 18, was shot in the face with an AK-47; and when her youngest, Hugh, 16, took a bullet to the back of the head.

Miraculously, all of them survived.

“Honestly, I can’t even explain that feeling…of knowing my children were out there,” Martin says. “I kept trying to figure out, how [were] my children going to survive with me gone for so long?”

And Martin was still behind bars in 2008, the day she received a phone call to come down to the prison chapel, something everyone knew happened only when a loved one had passed away.

It was Martin’s sister, her best friend and childhood confidante. She had died of a heart attack.

“I had never felt anything like that before in my life,” Martin recalls years later, wiping tears from her eyes.

Her sister’s death struck Martin hard, and she spiraled into a deep depression. She says it was during this time that a friend at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel invited her to go to a prison church service. Martin reluctantly went along and sat in the back row, unconvinced and skeptical. But slowly, something changed. She began going back every week and eventually got picked to participate in a religious retreat.

“I was finally able to understand that the choices I was making [were] the result of a lot of abandonment issues…and a lot of self-esteem problems. We have all different kinds of religions; we have all kinds of beliefs. But for me, it wasn’t until I truly developed a relationship with God that I was no longer empty. I knew then that my mission in life, my purpose, was to reach others just like me.”

At the same time, she came to realize that, like so many others in her situation, the odds had been stacked against her.

Martin’s first arrest echoes that of far too many people in her situation—she was poor, black, had limited resources, and was unable to post bail.

Rightsizing America’s bloated jail population is a national issue, but Louisiana stands out. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, 52 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana were held in local jails in 2013, the highest rate in the country. The state with the next highest rate was Kentucky, at 39 percent. In 2010 at the Orleans Parish Prison, 85 percent of the people detained were black. Black defendants also stayed twice as long pretrial as their white counterparts facing the same charge, according to a 2015 study from the Data Center, a New Orleans–based data analysis group.

Lengthy pretrial detention goes against a core value of the U.S. judicial system: that one is innocent until proved guilty. It can also have severe economic and social consequences in a person’s life—including loss of employment, housing, health care, and custody of children, as well as the breakdown of social ties.

Studies have also shown that there is a direct correlation between pretrial detention and long-term recidivism, especially among defendants who are considered low-risk—meaning they are not considered a flight risk or a threat to the community. A 2013 study found that the longer low-risk defendants were detained, the more likely they were to commit a new crime within two years of case disposition.

In 2012, in an effort to help reduce the jail population in New Orleans, the Vera Institute of Justice created and implemented a pretrial services program that screens defendants using metrics—including a person’s criminal history, family situation, mental health background, employment history, and the seriousness of the current crime they are charged with—to formulate recommendations for setting bail rather than basing those decisions solely on the existing criminal charge.

Pretrial services weren’t available when Martin was first arrested, but all of the factors in her case would have pointed to a low-risk assessment: no prior felony arrests, a minor shoplifting charge, strong ties to the community—and she was pregnant. Martin acknowledges that, had a similar program existed when she was jailed, she probably would have been released in the interim while prosecutors screened her case.

“[They] could have identified barriers and gone the extra steps to make the connections. Of course, ultimately it would have been on me,” Martin says. Would she have avoided many years of criminal behavior had she received those services? It is impossible to say now, but she believes it may have helped.

Three years after starting with the pretrial services program, Martin stands in her office, a high-rise on the edge of the New Orleans Central Business District, and looks out through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. From here she can see the palm trees and flashing neon signs that line Canal Street, the swimming pools that dot the rooftops of the neighboring hotels and luxury condominiums, the bright lights of the Saenger Theater and Hotel Monteleone.

In the periphery, she can see the remnants of the public housing complex where she grew up, most of which has been torn down and replaced by mixed-income units—pastel-colored homes with white trim and grassy front yards. It’s a permanent reminder of where she came from and how she got where she is now.

“I look nothing like my story,” Martin says. “Nothing.”

* * *

On April 12, 2012, after spending a combined 10 years in and out of jails and prisons, Martin left St. Gabriel a free woman. During the course of her incarceration she dug trenches, harvested and cut grass, oversaw the maintenance shop, got her GED, and completed a program in office systems technology.

Still, nothing could have prepared her for life on the outside. Katrina had changed the face of the city forever, and Martin recognized almost nothing.

“I was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know who could help me; I didn’t have resources,” Martin says.

Through the help of several mentors and the support of close friends, Martin began putting the pieces together and eventually enrolled in a local community college, where, in December 2015, she graduated with a degree in business administration.

Through an internship-placement program provided by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, Martin interviewed at New Orleans Pretrial Services and was soon hired as a part-time employee; in time she became a full-time staff member.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera's New Orleans pretrial services. Martin is shown standing for a portrait near where her childhood home once stood on December 3, 2015 in New Orleans.
Martin stands near the site of her childhood home in New Orleans.

Jon Wool, the director of Vera’s New Orleans office, says Martin’s positive outlook, sense of justice, and real-life experiences make her an invaluable asset.

“It’s really important to have [people] who are from the community that we serve, but it’s also really important for us…to have colleagues who have real-world experience with these systems we’re trying to improve,” Wool says. “Dolfinette is an extraordinary resource to us, and a really genuine, wonderful person.”

In her current role, Martin works as the administrative assistant and office manager, but her job consists of much more than answering phones and pushing paper. There are two tiers of the program—one deals with the initial risk assessment and the other with supervision of clients who have been released on their own recognizance.

Many of the individuals Martin now deals with are clients who were arrested and released pretrial and must await a charging decision from the district attorney’s office. In the meantime, Martin makes friendly calls to check in and see how clients are doing, and reminds them of their upcoming court appearances. She often recognizes the people who enter her office: folks she was raised with, children she watched grow up in the Calliope.

“I see myself in every client that comes through that door,” Martin says. “A lot of the times we just talk, and I tell them about how I got to be here. I tell them about the prison time and the substance abuse. I let them know, ‘I’ve been where you at.’ ”

Martin says it helps for people struggling with drug addiction and criminal charges to see someone who was able to break the cycle and find redemption. “A lot of times, it’s laughter and tears, because we know where we came from. [They] remember the old me and see me now, and know that there’s hope,” she says.

Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug related charges and now works as an advocate with Vera's New Orleans pretrial services. Martin is shown standing for a portrait near where her childhood home once stood on December 3, 2015 in New Orleans.
Dolfinette Martin spent years in prison on drug-related charges and now works as an advocate with New Orleans Pretrial Services. She is shown in December 2015 near the site where her childhood home once stood.

Resources available to people who have a criminal record are still scarce, making reentry—especially for women—particularly cumbersome. Martin’s experience has fueled her passion for social and criminal justice; she has become an avid champion of formerly incarcerated people and reentry programs, often appearing as a public speaker and working with a number of community programs throughout the city.

She frequently returns to the prison in St. Gabriel, where she meets with women and offers them advice on how to handle reentering society and look for jobs. “The first thing I tell them, is ‘It’s going to be hard, but you can do it,’ ” Martin says.

“There’s such a high rate of incarcerated black women and I know that when we come home, most of us have kids and families to raise,” she says. “Fathers can or can not deal with that, but mamas—we don’t have that option. I’m determined that when anyone I know comes out from St. Gabriel, I can help link them to something,” she says.

* * *

Martin is in the process of pursuing another college degree and dreams of someday working at or even running a program for women dealing with reentry. She still returns to the place where she grew up, where she visits with the residents and tells them about her story. She always takes the time to stop and chat with her mentor, Donna Johnigan, who oversees the housing facilities as president of the B.W. Cooper Resident Management Corporation.

“She never gave up,” Johnigan says. “She’s an example of what happens when you’re given a chance. It’s not just about her—it’s about people that look like her.”

On a recent visit, Martin stands where her house used to be, on an empty street in the shadow of the downtown Superdome.

The street is silent in the cool December air and Martin tightens the scarf wrapped around her head while a car drives by slowly, its occupants craning their necks in curiosity. Martin smiles and tilts her head as if to say to them, “Believe it or not, it’s me.”

* * *

Helen Freund is a freelance journalist in New Orleans who writes about food, culture, and criminal justice. Her work has been published by Gambit Weekly, The Times-Picayune, Reuters, The New York Post, Resource Magazine, and others. Follow her on Twitter @helenfreund.

Edmund D. Fountain is an editorial and commercial photographer living in New Orleans who specializes in environmental portraiture and reportage.